The Smell of Fear, More than a Metaphor

It has been said in a number of mediums–though most of them have not been exactly academic–that you can smell another person’s fear. Though the idea that we can sense when other people are afraid is not at all a new concept and has a firm foundation in cognitive science and the study of human relationships, it is not very commonly held that fear can actually, literally be scented. But this may in fact be the case. In a study that reflects the sometimes whimsical world of psychological research, a team from Germany’s University of Dusseldorf has investigated whether the smell of fear is real or simply a fun way to say that we know when there are frightened people afoot.

The study was carried out in a way that might not seem entirely pleasant. In the name of science, however, a group of students were given cotton pads to place in their armpits before an exam. The same group was also given these pads before exercising on a different occasion. After all the pads had been used and collected, students were asked to smell pairs of pads. The smelling took place while subjects were connected to an MRI scanning system. While subjects could not report any difference between the “test anxiety” and “exercise” pads, their brains showed a significant amount of activity in key areas when smelling the “test anxiety” pads.

The pattern suggests that while we may not overtly experience the smell of fear, our noses have a lot to do with telling us about the mood or state of those around us. Therapists might not want to start sniffing their clients outright, but an openness to the sense of others’ emotions and more serious consideration may prove helpful in understanding just how people feel.

© Copyright 2009 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • themuse


    July 25th, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    Good article! Thanks. It’s astonishing that a body fluid can give that away and we don’t consciously recognize the difference. I’m very intuitive and have no trouble telling when a person is anxious. I don’t have to physically be in a room with them to tell nor hear them speak. We can be in a chatroom with them saying all is wonderful but I know. Our brains work in mysterious ways.

  • Craig H.

    Craig H.

    July 25th, 2009 at 7:16 PM

    The smell of my sweat socks would strike fear and panic into all of them. I’ll send a pair in the interests of research.

  • Maggie


    July 27th, 2009 at 2:43 AM

    What an interesting study. I don’t think I would want to smell armpits, but whatever has to be done to do studies, so be it.

  • Gloria


    July 27th, 2009 at 10:58 AM

    There are so many nuances to human behavior that we are in tune with that we do not even recognize and that has always fascinated me. Sometimes we just do not give ourselves enough credit. It is easy to dismiss this animalistic side to ourselves because we all want to think that we are more evolved than that. But I guess there are times when those animal instincts do still come in handy for us!

  • Gloria


    July 28th, 2009 at 3:32 AM

    I think it has something to do with our pheromones if they are called that. I do know animals give out specific pheromones when they are scared, intending to mate etc. I think that’s one reason kids get chased by dogs when they are afraid.

  • Austin


    July 28th, 2009 at 6:01 AM

    You’ve got that right Gloria. And there are just as many times when it is easy to read that fear on someone’s face too

  • Jamie


    August 4th, 2009 at 3:05 AM

    Smell of fear?? What next the smell of cheating? This sounds a bit like video zonkers!!

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